- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- The fact that Dwyane Wade wants to be respected for what he has accomplished with the Miami Heat, is demanding to be taken care of handsomely well into the twilight of his career and still believes he’s one of the NBA’s elite players at this stage all comes as little surprise.
What’s stunning -- and stinging -- are the timing and the tactics in play here.
Self-proclaimed Heat Lifers don’t go public like this. And so-called Heat Nation’s administration should be more careful about who it takes for granted. But reports on Thursday indicating Wade and the Heat are already at an impasse over a new contract, and that the most productive player in franchise history may be open to bolting, reveals a disturbing breach in the way both are conducting business these days.
This is a break from protocol -- the professional, classy and loyal way they’ve typically operated. This is now much closer to petty. Just the mere discussion of the possibility Wade would walk away from the Heat just a year after LeBron fled Miami is enough to sink South Beach.
Wade is still a month away from the deadline to determine if he’ll opt out of the remaining year and $16.1 million on the two-year, $31 million deal he signed last summer. This was the contract he signed after LeBron James’ free-agency departure, which came after Wade opted out of the final two years and $41.6 million owed on the original six-year deals each member of the Heat’s Big Three inked in 2010.
Apparently, there are limits to happiness when you’re a Heat Lifer. Just in the past year, Wade has seen the Heat reward Bosh with a $120 million deal over five years to salvage last summer. And in a few more weeks, he’ll watch the Heat hand out another $100 million in an effort to keep point guard Goran Dragic, who was acquired for two first-round draft picks at the February trade deadline. Next summer, there’s likely another boatload of money earmarked for the Hassan Whiteside retention program.
Where does Wade fit in all of this? Probably somewhere along the lines of a glorified version of Udonis Haslem, the rugged defender who repeatedly gave up chances to go elsewhere and took less money to stay with his hometown team. The truth is, this is likely Wade’s last chance to cash in on a relatively long-term lucrative deal. After missing 27 games during a "maintenance program" campaign to preserve his knees in 2013-14, Wade was relatively maintenance free this season and still missed another 20 games.
It’s hard to value those analytics.
The Heat and Wade still have plenty of time to work this out. But leaking early haggles through the media a month before any decision having to be made strongly suggests some trust and appreciation have eroded. It’s the result of two prideful men growing more and more stubborn with age.
At age 70 and edging closer to retiring to his palatial Southern California estate, Pat Riley no longer minces words when he challenges Wade through the media about his weight, injury history, reluctance to convince LeBron to stay and lingering questions about one day accepting a slightly reduced role off the bench. Riley reverted to his old-school way of poking and prodding his best players when he addressed the media in April amid the wreckage of the Heat’s first losing season in six years.
The tactic Wade and his camp are taking entering free agency is no different than the route Riley strolled and trolled back then. This is no referendum on Wade’s résumé. Heha s overachieved even as the No. 5 pick in the 2003 draft. He has won three titles with the Heat, has been a perennial All-Star and has his name all over the team’s record books for career production. Yet never throughout his 12 NBA seasons in Miami was Wade ever the team’s highest-paid player.
That distinction went to Shaquille O’Neal during Wade’s early breakout seasons, to Shawn Marion and Jermaine O’Neal during those rough middle passages that ended in first-round playoff exits at best, and then to LeBron and Bosh during Miami’s run to four consecutive NBA Finals. On at least two occasions, Wade has put himself in this position by sacrificing to create cap space to help Miami bolster the roster.
Now that he’s 33 and on the downside of his career despite some remarkable stretches when healthy, Wade is hardly seeking to clog up the Heat’s salary structure as the team desperately tries to regroup from a 37-45 finish. But what Wade wants, presumably, is a little more security beyond his contract option for next season. What he seeks is a three-year deal, likely in the range of about $45 million.
It doesn’t require a fly on the wall in Riley’s executive suite at AmericanAirlines Arena to suspect the Heat would prefer to play this out for two years with an option with Wade, considering his age and health. The problem here is the Kobe Bryant precedent.
Wade views himself as the second-best shooting guard in the league behind Bryant during the era they shared for much of the past 15 years. But it’s not the two additional titles Bryant owns that are the issue in this comparison. It’s the two-year, $48.5 million contract extension the Los Angeles Lakers gave a 35-year-old Bryant two years ago that has made this such an uneasy approach for Wade and the Heat.
Wade doesn’t seek -- nor should the Heat feel obligated to pay -- Kobe-type money the way the Lakers doled out for a round of injury-riddled farewell tours that are far more likely to end in the lottery than anywhere near the vicinity of the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The reality is that Wade’s best option is to resolve this with the Heat.
Riley and Wade have had their issues before, and have found a way to work through the kinks. It happened five years ago, when moments after Riley’s front-office contingent wrapped up that recruiting meeting with James in Cleveland, he was approached about Wade taking a second free-agency meeting with the Bulls. It was ultimately Heat owner Micky Arison who stepped in and summoned Wade to Miami for the one-on-one powwow that finalized his commitment that secured the Big Three era.
And it was in the summer of 2009, after a frustrated Wade finished third in MVP voting, that he grew impatient and pushed for roster upgrades. Riley, adamant about keeping salary flexibility for the LeBron summer of 2010, appeased Wade with a close but failed bid to lure Lamar Odom from the Lakers.
Wade publicly and repeatedly showing affection and affirming his friendship with LeBron at a time when Riley was still privately seething about the departure has remained a wedge between the two on some levels. But this current dilemma is more about Wade flexing what remaining leverage he feels he has left as an attraction -- either in Miami or another star-craving NBA market.
What’s clear is that Wade and Riley have come too far to falter at this point in the game. Yes, the honeymoon has long been over and the nagging spats and nitpicking are more common now than ever. But these two share a professional marriage worth salvaging. The public posturing only proves that things aren’t quite the way they used to be at Wade’s residence on Biscayne Boulevard.
But what Wade would be sacrificing to leave the Heat for a fleeting season or two elsewhere is far greater than whatever it’ll cost him to stay.
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